Tag: collaboration

Raven Chacon: Fluidity of Sound

Banner for the Raven Chacon episode of SoundLives featuring a photo of Raven writing music on a piece of score paper.

Raven Chacon in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded Wednesday, June 8, 2022 at 10:30 A.M. over Zoom
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

When Raven Chacon was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in April for his composition Voiceless Mass, quite a lot of attention was given to the fact that he was the first Native American ever to receive this accolade. He is also perhaps the most experimental composer to get the nod, and that is true even considering that previous honorees include Henry Brant and Ornette Coleman. But while his idiosyncratic graphic scores are stunningly original in their conception and have been recognized as works of visual art in their own right (several are in this year’s Whitney Biennial), they have a larger social purpose.

“I think a lot about people who didn’t have the privilege to come up in an academic music setting or western music education,” explained Chacon when we spoke over Zoom earlier this month. “I think about the students I teach on the reservation and their lack of access to classical music, or western music education. Even having an instrument is a privilege for students out there. And so a lot works that I’ve made, especially these graphic scores, they’re done because they want to include more people. They aren’t these kind of esoteric languages that are hidden from everybody and they’re also not open interpretation kind of documents either. They have a language that is shared with people who want to contribute to their meaning, to add to the possibilities.”

The ideas that generate Chacon’s often highly experimental sound results are charged stories with deep implications about ecological concerns or social justice, such as Tremble Staves, an immersive work about the environment created for the San Francisco-based duo The Living Earth Show, or American Ledger No. 2, a visceral aural as well as visual response to this nation’s shameful history of enforced repatriations which received its world premiere in the parking lot of the Oklahoma Eagle in the Greenwood District of Tulsa.

“It’s thinking about this space that is existing in a city where there’s folks who don’t have privileges and resources,” Chacon said of the latter work. “Also talking about the policy of forcing native peoples from other tribes into Oklahoma. Once these minoritized communities become successful, such as the black community of Tulsa in the early 20th century, they were then driven out. Were forced out. And so sonically, I was interested in seeing what this system does. Does it create chaos? Does it create organization? Does it create a steady beat? Does it create voice? What happens inside of this?”

To hear Chacon speak of sonic experimentation this way makes his often intentionally inaccessible-sounding music extremely accessible. His occasionally jarring sonorities are always a means to an end. It isn’t always something that even he himself finds pleasant to listen to as he acknowledged when talking about his wind band composition American Ledger No. 1:

I can’t say that I particularly like the sound of the chopping of wood. I was thinking about this as an instrument and realizing I didn’t think it was a good way to make music. And I had to work with that. I had to think if I’m just making music that should be something that I like to listen to. And even if it’s a sound that nobody likes to hear, I wanted to weigh the meaning of what it could mean. And so in the case of American Ledger 1, the chopping of wood signifies the building of ships. It signifies the building of the colonies that happened in the place after the ships arrived. And it has the potential to talk about then cutting down those buildings–chopping them down with an axe, lighting them on fire. A matchstick is another instrument I use in American Ledger 2 and in Tremble Staves. And I do like the sound of a match being lit. That, on the strike pad, is a beautiful sound.

One of the most extreme examples of this is his early composition Report in which an ensemble of eight people fire shotguns according to a precisely notated musical score. His feelings about that work now and around whether to let future performances of it occur in an era when mass shootings occur somewhere in the United States every week, are understandably extremely complicated.

Because societal awareness is so central to Raven Chacon’s aesthetics as an artist, he has proven to be a natural collaborator, often placing himself in situations where few composers would feel comfortable. For the opera Sweet Land, which was produced by The Industry just before the pandemic lockdown began in 2020, he immersed himself in a total collaboration with another composer, Du Yun, both contributing their own music as well as harmonizing, orchestrating, and further developing ideas of each other. His collaborative sensibilities were on display most recently in the score he composed for Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli’s documentary film, Lakota Nation vs. United States, which just received its premiere screening at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.

“I appreciated not being in the foreground for anything,” Chacon said. “I appreciated being able to reach into archives of things that I have that didn’t fit my normal music. You know, like Baroque fugue or something, why couldn’t that end up in the documentary about the Lakota nation, you know? Because we’re contrasting different times of American history. And sometimes the placement of just music you don’t expect is going to add to telling that story of that conflict. What we’re talking about throughout this documentary is conflict, encroachment. … That was how I approached it because again the last thing I wanted to do was bring new age, reverbed wooden flutes to this score. That’s what’s expected. And so the producers and directors had known my music, and that’s what they wanted. They wanted noise. They wanted the things that one does not associate with native people. Because to do so, might place them in the past. And we’re talking about an ongoing disrespect of Lakota treaties and people that something had to bring it at least into now and into what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

  • As composers, it’s very hard to say what you want to say with instrumental music. You can make the title say what you want to say. You can write program notes all day about it. But ultimately, what does the music have an opportunity to actually convey?

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • In all honesty, I kind of accidentally found myself in that art side of things. I’ve always considered myself a composer first. It’s just that I found opportunities and maybe different attention from that world. And it did come about by way of scores. Some of the graphic notation that I was working with were things that people wanted to exhibit. And I kept telling them it’s just the document to make the music happen.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • Every music you listen to, probably everything you’ve ever listened to, will end up in the music you make. ... If you live near a highway in a city, that might influence a kind of music to be made. If you live near a highway in a very rural place, that might end up as another kind of music. And so I think that second one is the kind of music that I end up making.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • often get asked okay, am I supposed to hear native music in here? You know, a particular tribe’s melodies or rhythms, and I say no. I don’t do that. I don’t have to do that actually, if that’s a connection that a listener makes because of all the tropes they’ve heard throughout popular culture, then that becomes their thing that I get to play with. But it’s not something I’m going to intentionally put into a music work.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • The interesting thing about ruins is unless you’re some kind of expert, an archeologist or something, you might not be able to tell how old the ruins are.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I’m not a person who tries to write difficult music to stump people. I’m not a new complexity type of person.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I think a lot about people who didn’t have the privilege to come up in an academic music setting or western music education. I think about the students I teach on the reservation and their lack of access to classical music, or western music education. Even having an instrument is a privilege for students out there. And so a lot works that I’ve made, especially these graphic scores, they’re done because they want to include more people. They aren’t these kind of esoteric languages that are hidden from everybody and they’re also not open interpretation kind of documents either. They have a language that is shared with people who want to contribute to their meaning, to add to the possibilities.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I can’t say that I particularly like the sound of the chopping of wood. I was thinking about this as an instrument and realizing I didn’t think it was a good way to make music. And I had to work with that. I had to think if I’m just making music that should be something that I like to listen to. And even if it’s a sound that nobody likes to hear, I wanted to weigh the meaning of what it could mean.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I do like the sound of a match being lit. That, on the strike pad, is a beautiful sound.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • If anything is possible, then I should write a piece of music that is going to have limitations on myself. No pitch. No timbral changes. No volume. I can’t control the volume. And maybe no tuning, no harmony. Nothing. No time. Of course, I found you can’t escape time. But everything else I felt I could. What kind of instrument can I find that could eliminate all of these possibilities and choices? And so I was thinking, okay a snare drum. But no, you could play a snare drum very quietly. There’s still a lot you can do with a snare drum. And so I thought, okay guns. You know, being in New Mexico, it’s something we would actually go do on the weekends: go practice shooting. And it’s ten minutes to drive out to the desert and nobody cares what you do. I have relatives who hunt. Friends who hunt. It’s a way of life in rural places.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • Sometimes the placement of just music you don’t expect is going to add to telling that story of that conflict.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon

Native Experimentalists

I started writing this article in what is presently called La Villita in northern New Mexico. These are the lands of Puebloan people, more specifically Ohkay Owingeh, as well as Jicarilla Apache. I’m finishing the article in Muwekma Ohlone lands, presently called the San Francisco Bay Area.

Thanks to NewMusicBox for inviting me to write this article. It’s an honor for me to help bring attention to the vital and extremely varied work of Native artists and communities who are historically, and presently, otherwise too often under-known and overlooked. I’m not an authority on this extensive subject, and I identify as a musician first and foremost. All the same, I recognize that I have accrued some knowledge, personal experience and relationships over the years that I can draw upon. I’m deeply honored to have been entrusted with such a task.

It’s an honor for me to help bring attention to the vital and extremely varied work of Native artists and communities who are historically, and presently, otherwise too often under-known and overlooked.

For years now, I’ve been a regular contributor to First American Art Magazine (FAAM) which is devoted to the work of Native artists of this continent. I’ve also had writings published in Full Moon Magazine (Prague), an Anthology of Essays on Deep Listening for Pauline Oliveros’s 80th birthday and most recently Three Fold Press out of Detroit. I’ve learned so much through these processes and from the various editors! I never set out to be a published writer; it’s been a rewarding adventure for me in a lot of ways.

Here I’ll be focusing first and foremost on three Native experimental musicians (Raven Chacon, Nathan Young, and Laura Ortman) who I have had personal experiences with as well as the scenes and communities that they’ve cultivated over the years plus brief segments on three musicians whose work I have covered as a contributor to FAAM (Warren Realrider, Jacqueline Wilson, and Michael Begay).

I first met Raven Chacon (Diné) in 2010 while on a cross-country tour with my Italian band Tsigoti. Raven was involved in a loose knit organization called Coalmine Kollektiv that presented our show in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Since then, we’ve become good friends and collaborators. I’ve covered much of his work in reviews and profiles for FAAM, and we have published works together as a duo including a recent recording of our performance at Array Music in Toronto for my Astral Spirits Traveling Sessions series. As a presenter and space holder for artists, Raven’s been involved in many organizations over the years while maintaining his own community art and music spaces like Small Engine and Spirit Abuse as well as his record label Sicksicksick Distro. I played shows with Raven, John Dieterich, and Jeremy Barnes in both of these community centers and have been able to take in many shows at both that provide opportunities for musicians who have little or no available venues otherwise. On top of that he’s a remarkably prolific composer, working on commissions regularly for performers and performances around the world.

My initial exposure to Raven’s work came from his involvement in Postcommodity, which is a Native artists collective based in the Southwest. At that time the core members included Cristóbal Martínez (Chicano), Kade L. Twist (Cherokee), Steven Yazzie (Navajo/Laguna), and Nathan Young (Delaware Tribe of Indians/Pawnee/Kiowa). The work of Post-Commodity utilizes any and all artistic disciplines and mediums to articulate a myriad of viewpoints, perspectives and expressions. From their website: “Postcommodity’s art functions as a shared Indigenous lens and voice to engage the assaultive manifestations of the global market and its supporting institutions, public perceptions, beliefs, and individual actions that comprise the ever-expanding, multinational, multiracial and multiethnic colonizing force that is defining the 21st Century through ever-increasing velocities and complex forms of violence.”

The collective provided cover art for two albums from my Estamos Project; jimpani kustakwa ka jankwariteecherï by Estamos Ensemble on Edgetone Records and People’s Historia by Estamos Trio (Carmina Escobar and Milo Tamez) on Relative Pitch Records. jimpani kustakwa ka jankwariteecherï is a direct translation of “compositions and improvisations” in the P’urhépecha language which is mostly spoken in rural communities in the highlands of Michoacán, México, where our violinist Julián Martínez Vázquez was born and presently lives. Postcommodity provided a photo of a graphic score made from ground coal, salt, and rock from the dead Gila River which was part of a larger mixed-media installation called Worldview Manipulation Therapy. The piece was exhibited in 2009 at The Ice House in Phoenix. Worldview Manipulation Therapy “… draws upon the ephemeral, transformative and esoteric aspects of tribal ceremonies — central to the Indigenous worldview.” It’s a reexamination of the on-going postcolonial stress enforced by globalization and neoliberalism. The graphic score was the centerpiece of the overall installation incorporating traditional tribal geometries.

Drumhead from the installation Worldview Manipulation Therapy

Worldview Manipulation Therapy – 2009.
Multichannel video, sound and mixed-media installation. Duration: 12 Hours.
from the installation view at The Ice House, Phoenix, AZ.

A bladder of blood was placed inside the cavity of the gutted deer dripping blood periodically onto the drum that was then effected and amplified throughout the plaza. The piece was created in response to the 400th anniversary of Santa Fe from the Indigenous perspective.

The cover for Estamos Trio’s People’s Historia was a close up of a blood soaked Pueblo drum which was part of a public installation in the Santa Fe Plaza in 2010 titled “P’oe iwe naví ûnp’oe dînmuu/My Blood is in the Water” (mule deer taxidermy, wood poles, water, amplifier, drum). The collective hung a deer in the center of the plaza above a ceremonial drum fixed with contact mics. A bladder of blood was placed inside the cavity of the gutted deer dripping blood periodically onto the drum that was then effected and amplified throughout the plaza. The piece was created in response to the 400th anniversary of Santa Fe from the Indigenous perspective. It’s a tribute to the traditional relationship between people and food/nature in the region. “‘My Blood is in the Water’ is a counter-metaphor critiquing the dominant culture’s process of commoditization, demand/supply and convenience.” It is an expression of the continuity between the present Indigenous culture and the past.

A close-up of the drumhead from the installation My Blood is in the Water.

A close-up of the drumhead from the installation My Blood is in the Water.

Through Raven and Postcommodity I’ve developed a friendship and working relationship with Nathan Young (Delaware/Pawnee/Kiowa), and have been exposed to and written about the work of Jacqueline Wilson (Yakama), Michael Begay (Diné), and Warren Realrider (Pawnee/Crow) for FAAM.

Nathan Young is a Tulsa Arts Fellow and former member of Postcommodity. He’s presently enrolled in the Native American Art History Ph.D. program at the University of Oklahoma which is the first and only program that approaches the study of Native American Art from a critical perspective rather than within the field of anthropology. I’ve had the fortune to write about Nathan’s work a variety of times for FAAM as well to spend time in his community both participating in and witnessing his work as an artist and presenter. Since I’m on the road perpetually, I have the opportunity to experience the work of others as I travel. This is one of the reasons I’ve been such a regular contributor to FAAM, primarily when I was writing solely about visual art. Sometimes my touring is dense, moving from one city to the next night after night and sometimes it’s more relaxed and allows me the privilege to spend time within communities and scenes, to both collaborate with and document other artists. My partner ACVilla and I have a duo project, Silver Ochre, which is focused on the creation of video art and documentaries that are engaged in social justice issues and the needs of communities. So all of this lends itself naturally to writing about the work of others. That said, in 2018 I was invited by Nathan to perform a multimedia work of Silver Ochre’s as part of his Tulsa Noise programming which was facilitated by the Tulsa Artist Fellowship. I spent three days there getting to know fellows and faculty as well as Nathan and his work as an artist and presenter. (The fellowship has been in existence since 2015, prioritizing opportunities for Native American artists and artists of color.)

Everyone’s standing around a pickup truck they are using as a big drum. A certain kind of extended technique!

Following those few days in Tulsa, Nathan and I drove up to Kansas City for the opening of his art show “Night Music of the Southern Plains American Indian” at the Center for Contemporary Practice at KCAI Crossroads Gallery. (I wrote about this show in the Spring 2019 issue of FAAM.) Situated in two different rooms of the gallery, one room was dedicated entirely to a sacred experience of Peyote, the culture and the ceremony. The other, much larger room included an old pickup truck facing a projection on a screen. The projection was documentation from the opening concert that was held in the parking lot of the gallery. Nathan invited the Southern Thunder Singers to perform what is called 49 music. These are songs typically sung at after parties the nights following powwows, out on back roads or fields, with everyone standing around a pickup truck they are using as a big drum. A certain kind of extended technique! The truck was then brought into the gallery and placed with its headlights facing a screen on which was projected the documentation of the concert. The show ended a month later with students of Dwight Frizzell’s at KCAI performing a graphic score on the amplified truck. The idea was to perform the truck from a western perspective, with a score that the students interpreted with transducers, baseball bats, contact mics, and chalk while Nathan processed the Elton John song “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” through his laptop.

Jacqueline Wilson is a bassoonist and serves on the faculty at Washington State University. She’s just begun recording an album of works for bassoon by Native composers including Raven Chacon, Juantio Becenti (Diné), Gillian Whitehead (Maori), and the late Louis W. Ballard (Cherokee/Quapaw), slated to be completed in late 2022. She also recently commissioned a work for bassoon and marimba called Nocturne by Connor Chee (Diné). With another bassoonist (Stephanie Willow Patterson, Columbus State University), she is preparing a work by Elizabeth A. Baker titled Collective Collaborative.

Performance of Bluebirds by Juantio Becenti in Montezuma Creek UT on the Navajo Nation
Jacqui Wilson – Bassoon
Yuko Kato – Piano

Michael Begay (Diné) is a tireless creative force playing in metal bands like Akklamation, which he and his brother started in 2005, as well as writing commissions and teaching in the Native American Composer Apprentice Project, which has been part of the Grand Canyon Music Festival since 2001.

In 2018-2019 Michael was the Composer-in-Residence with the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra. Recent commissions include a work for Orchestra Northern Arizona, a solo composition for the Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli, a string quartet for Black Dog String Quartet, and a duo for violin and piano performed by Stefan Milenkovich and Renata Yazzie (Diné) at Northern Arizona University’s Native American Cultural Center. He was invited to study composition at the Peabody Institute beginning in the Fall 2021.

Premiere of Michael’s newest works as a commission by Shelter Music Boston: “Chiaroscuro”, “Hai (Winter)”, “Cloak of Autumn”

Warren Realrider performs under the moniker of Tick Suck and has been a regular contributor to Tulsa Noise. Warren Realrider (Pawnee/Crow) is a multidisciplinary sound artist based in Norman, Oklahoma. He created the Tick Suck noise performance project in 2016 and has since presented his solo works and sound performance collaborations in varied Tulsa and Oklahoma City settings. His piece IIII Kitapaatu, presented at the Tulsa Noise Fest in 2019, is featured in the forthcoming documentary Love and Fury by Sterlin Harjo. Realrider works within the liminal space between object, function, and ceremony to extract sound sources which are then processed and deconstructed utilizing contemporary music technology. Elements of harsh noise, sound art, and indigenous music are blended into compositions improvised in response to the location, context, and space of Tick Suck performances.

Video by Blackhorse Lowe (Diné) at the 2019 Tulsa Noisefest of Tick Suck (Warren Realrider) playing willow, imitation sinew, cymbal with a contact mic, distortion and feedback.

Warren Realrider’s Unassigned Data at the Oklahoma Contemporary Gallery

Laura Ortman (White Mountain Apache) and I first met through filmmaker Martha Colburn who invited us to provide live musical accompaniment for a screening of her films at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2009. Laura and I had both worked with Martha for some time before meeting. I was so blown away the first time hearing her and my fascination with Laura as a musician continues to deepen every time I have the opportunity to hear and/or collaborate with her. Laura experiments with cross-disciplinary, genre-bending approaches to music and performance, drawing on both her classical violin training and Indigenous musical traditions. While she plays electric guitar, keyboards, pedal steel guitar, makes field recordings, and sings through a megaphone, her main instrument is her singular violin.

Laura Ortman experiments with cross-disciplinary, genre-bending approaches to music and performance, drawing on both her classical violin training and Indigenous musical traditions.

Six years ago, Laura was one of four Native artists who, through the Artist Leadership Program of the National Museum of the American Indian, the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) in Santa Fe, was invited to create socially engaged art. In turn, she invited me to participate in her residency by sounding the magnificent Echo Amphitheater north of Abiquiú as well as record with her in the studio she was provided at MoCNA. Laura recorded with a handful of local musicians and blended it all together with field recordings she gathered of the city and region. She described this work as a customized soundtrack of Santa Fe. She also continued this approach to sonic engagement with her work commissioned by Issue Project Room she called Dust Dives Alive. The piece is part of the Isolated Field Recording Series which she published on her Bandcamp account Dust Dive Flash.

In 2016 we met up again at Park Church Co-op in Brooklyn. The evening of four sets was to raise funds and awareness in support of the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline #nodapl. Her solo performance of violin and effects was incredibly deep and soaring under the vaulted ceilings and the old hardwood. Not long after that I invited her to participate in my residency at Pioneer Works which culminated in a concert of me in trio with Nels Cline and Michael Wimberly as well as a quartet with Laura, Yuka C. Honda, and Ravish Momin. ACVilla provided visuals which she gathered and created during the residency.

Laura’s album My Soul Remainer came out in 2017 which I reviewed for FAAM. Two years later, as a 2019 Whitney Biennial artist, she delivered a  concert that incorporated all of her sonic abilities to an understandably great reception. In that same period, her video, under the same name, debuted at the museum.

Here’s footage of the concert:

Plus the multimedia piece with the great ballet dancer Jock Soto (Diné):

This article makes it clear that there’s a tremendous amount of exciting work being produced by Native musicians. And of course there’s much more to cover beyond what I have here and no doubt much more to come. I think it’s crucial that the perspective of Native America be witnessed through the work of artistic practices.

 

Ricky Ian Gordon: My Way of Enveloping a Story

For the past 20 years, Ricky Ian Gordon has been creating works for the stage—operas, musicals, or one-of a-kind music/theater hybrids—and getting them produced one after another, seemingly without a pause. But 14 months ago, fresh off from the PROTOTYPE production of Ellen West and with two new works about to open—Intimate Apparel at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis with New York City Opera—plus a revival of The Grapes of Wrath at Aspen in the works, everything came to a screeching halt as the world went into lockdown due to the pandemic.

“They didn’t even take down the set of Intimate Apparel,” Ricky exclaimed when we spoke over Zoom. “Michael Yeargan’s set is there. Cathy Zuber’s costumes, Jennifer Tipton’s lights, everything’s in place. We just have to get back in the theater. We’ll open the theater again.”

But since everything has been on hold for over a year now, he has taken a break from madly finishing new scores. Instead, he has focused mostly on other things—writing poetry, a candid essay about his teenage obsession with Joni Mitchell which was published in Spin, and he’s now furiously at work on a book-length memoir that will be published in 2022 by Farrar Straus & Giroux.

“I couldn’t get behind writing music and anything that relies on performance during a period when there was not going to be any performance,” Gordon explained. “It just felt like the wrong direction. And also the whole Zoom music thing, like operas on Zoom, just doesn’t interest me that much. … But we’re all fickle, and if suddenly it was a form that was about my work, then I’m sure I’d turn around on it, ‘cause I’m 12-years-old inside.”

  • I actually decided I’m going to take a break from notes for a little while.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • I’m the guy who writes hybrid.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • It’s better to open a house on Madame Butterfly than on a brand new opera that is going to ask new things of this space.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • By the next time you see Pacific Overtures, it might be for like kazoo and French horn.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • If I could go back and have another life, I would be reading 24 hours a day.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • If you want to be a librettist, you have to be attached to the events and the stories.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • Because the AIDS crisis was in the center of my life, I was constantly writing for people who were dying.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • There is no such thing as history or then and now.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • The role of art in society and the role of the artist in society may in fact be more balanced when we return to normal, because death is way more clearly imminent.

    Ricky Ian Gordon

It’s somewhat surprising that Ricky Ian Gordon didn’t jump on the virtual music bandwagon, since for years he’s been involved in creating works for the stage that redefine possibilities and break boundaries. But he also excels at creating work that is emotionally direct and has an immediate impact with audiences, so it makes sense that he’d be skeptical about creating something designed to be experienced by isolated individuals in front of computer terminals. And what inspires him more than anything else is the narrative arc of a great story, whether it’s a John Steinbeck novel, passages from Marcel Proust, a poem by Frank Bidart about a patient of an early 20th century psychiatrist suffering from anorexia nervosa, or the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. While most of his stage works are based on events from the distant past, these stories are very much in the present for him.

“Is Grapes of Wrath any less resonant now than it was then?” he asked at one point in our talk. “The entire world is one big refugee crisis. One big drought. One big food shortage. One big government saying: it’s not my fault. The Grapes of Wrath could have been written yesterday! When we wrote 27 about Gertrude and Alice, what was the zeitgeist? Gay marriage. And this is like the original gay marriage. These two women were calling themselves husband and wife before World War I. It all feels like it’s happening now. … I never feel like I’m back in time. … I just feel like … I’m making myself available for those stories. Then I feel like they sort of explode through me. There is no such thing as history or then and now. There’s only the current moment and what seems to be my way of enveloping that story.”

Thankfully, though he has had numerous productions put on hiatus, Ricky Ian Gordon has not suffered great hardship during the past year as have so many others who have lost loved ones or have gotten sick themselves. But he is also a war-scarred survivor of the AIDS crisis which claimed tons of people dear to him, most significantly his partner Jeffrey Michael Grossi, whose death inspired his deeply personal adaptation of Orpheus and Eurydice and his poignant monodrama Green Sneakers. The lessons Gordon learned from that horrific time inform his outlook on where we as a society are right now.

“It was a very intense time,” he recalled. “Because the AIDS crisis was in the center of my life, I was constantly writing for people who were dying … We live in a very divided country right now, but I just can’t imagine we’re not all gonna be affected by this. … The role of art in society and the role of the artist in society may in fact be more balanced when we return to normal, because death is way more clearly imminent. … How do you incorporate that into a new world where at any moment you could get a pandemic and everyone could be killed? What does art mean then?”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Ricky Ian Gordon: My Way Of Enveloping A Story
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Ricky Ian Gordon
April 19, 2021—1:30pm EDT via Zoom
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Third Coast Percussion: The Collaborative Process

David Skidmore, Peter Martin, Robert Dillon, and Sean Connors (Photo by Saverio Truglia)

In the first couple of weeks following the global lock down, we hadn’t completely figured out how we were going to produce the extensive NewMusicBox Cover conversations that we launch on the first day of every month—we were too busy finishing up work on our talk with Nathalie Joachim which we were lucky enough to record just a week before all this began. But we knew that these in-depth conversations about new music were something we had to keep going somehow, especially since the next one was slated for May 1, the 21st anniversary of the launch of this publication online. What to do? So much of what has made these conversations so exciting is the intimacy, empathy, and camaraderie that emerges from an in-person encounter, often in the homes of the people with whom we are talking. But we’re also well aware that this method of recording these talks also comes with limitations. There are tons of exciting people making fascinating music all over this country whom we have wanted to feature on these pages, but we’ve usually been limited to folks who either live in the greater New York Tri-State area, are a possible day trip along the Northeastern Corridor in either direction, or have come to NYC for a performance (and those talks are obviously not at home and so run the risk of feeling less personal).

I’ve long been a fan of Third Coast Percussion which marks its 15th anniversary this year and I’ve been eager to talk with their four members for quite some time about their collaborations with Augusta Read Thomas, David T. Little, Donnacha Dennehy, Philip Glass, and more recently Devonté Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange) and JLin, as well as their own compositions. (I’m particularly enamored with TCP member David Skidmore’s immersive Common Patterns in Uncommon Time.) However, TCP is based in Chicago and is constantly touring around the country, so the dots never connected.

Then very soon after concerts started getting cancelled all over the country and we all began sheltering in place, TCP started presenting live stream concerts on their YouTube channel which were really motivational, particularly their second one on March 28 which—in addition to featuring the amazing pieces written for them by Glass, Hynes, and JLin, plus an awesome original by TCP’s Peter Martin—was a fundraiser for the New Music Solidary Fund which New Music USA administers. So I just had to figure out a way to make them the May 2020 NewMusicBox Cover somehow! Thanks to the Zoom platform and the fact that each of these four guys—Dave, Peter, Robert Dillon, and Sean Connors—was tech savvy enough to record themselves separately with microphones and camcorders, we were able to record a substantive conversation online from five different locations that looks and feels almost like we were all together… almost.

We talked about a very wide range of topics. They started off by sharing stories about how TCP introduces audiences to percussion instruments and how they each came to devote their lives to making music. Then we engaged in a heady series of dos and don’ts for writing and performing percussion music. After that, we spent a long time exploring some details of the staggering range of music they have nurtured from an extraordinarily wide range of creators including in-depth commentary about some of their own original compositions. Finally, we had a heart to heart about what they all have been doing to cope in these unprecedented and uncertain times that everyone has been thrust into. I hope you find what they each had to say as poignant and inspirational as I have.

[Ed. note: To accommodate a broad range of experiential modalities, we’ve included audio links for the entire conversation as well as a complete text transcription. Click on “Read the Full Transcript” and you will also be rewarded with a few video clips from the talk and well as several performances! To facilitate access, both the audio and the text have been divided into four discrete sections, each of which is self-contained, in order to make the experience somewhat more manageable since the total discussion ran a little over 100 minutes. We encourage you to bookmark this page in your browser and return to it multiple times rather than going through all of it in one go, unless you’re extremely intrepid! – FJO]

Molly Joyce: Strength in Vulnerabilty

Composer Molly Joyce

One of the hallmarks of many different kinds of music performance—whether it’s a classical piano recital, a jazz combo in a club, or an arena rock show—is the demonstration of extraordinary physical feats on musical instruments. A cult of virtuosity has perpetuated the belief that the harder something is to play, and hence the fewer people who are able to play it, the better the music, and that the rare specimens of humanity who are able to play such music have special superhuman powers. At the same time, embedded in the word virtuoso is the word virtuous, implying that the rest of us who can’t scale these heights are somehow lacking in moral goodness.

Composer/performer Molly Joyce explained to us when we visited her in Washington, D.C. at the Halcyon Arts Lab, where she’s in residence this year, why perpetuating the notion that only a small select few are physically worthy enough excludes most people from the experience of making and ultimately enjoying art:

I think it’s problematic when one type of body or one type of being is reinforced through new music that still seeks a physically virtuosic connection. And I think that’s why, at least for myself, I always try, in my own passive way, to hopefully suggest other types of physicality.

Although she eschewed pyrotechnics in her own music long before she publicly identified as disabled (which was only about two years ago), Joyce has found many alternatives to virtuosity since embarking on exploring disability aesthetics as an artistic pursuit. For her, vulnerability is the new virtuosity. As she explains, “It’s not like you have to necessarily get rid of virtuosity all together, but you can reimagine it through other forms.”

She realizes, however, that music lags behind other artistic disciplines in embracing disability, and because of that she has been drawn to working with video artists and choreographers. One of the most fascinating projects she has been involved with is Breaking and Entering, a collaboration with the disabled interdisplinary artist Jerron Herman, which was awarded a 2019 New Music USA Project Grant. During the course of the piece, she and Herman swap roles—she dances and he sings:

My dance is definitely not super on point, and he’s not super in tune all the time, but the whole point for us is, through the disability aesthetic, we’re coming together. It’s not perfect. There are enough mistakes and we’re showing this, and also showing our vulnerability through that, a breaking and entering through, hopefully, to something else. That’s just as interesting as a very virtuosic piece.

[Ed. Note: This month, guitarist Jiji will perform Molly Joyce’s Plus and Minus at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ (February 1). The South Carolina Intercollegiate Band, conducted by Jack Stamp, will perform her All or Nothing in Columbia, S.C. (February 8). NakedEye Ensemble will perform Less is More at The Cell in New York City (February 16). Cellist Alistair Sung will perform Tunnelvision at Batavierhuis in Rotterdam, Netherlands (February 20), and the Harvard Glee Club, conducted by Andrew Clark, will premiere a new Molly Joyce work with text by Marco Grosse at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA (February 21). On March 31, Joyce will moderate a Disability and Creativity Panel at the Halcyon Arts Lab in Washington, D.C., and on May 15, New Amsterdam Records will release her first full-length album Breaking and Entering which features her voice, vintage toy organ, and electronic layering of both sources “in an act to reimagine disability within the human body.”]

  • Vulnerability is a new virtuosity.

    Composer Molly Joyce
    Molly Joyce
  • Music and the arts in general should be more a place of personal expression.

    Composer Molly Joyce
    Molly Joyce
  • There are adaptive instruments, but you don’t see those at concerts.

    Composer Molly Joyce
    Molly Joyce
  • The first contemporary composers introduced to me by my high school composition teacher were Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

    Composer Molly Joyce
    Molly Joyce
  • Not everything has to be perfect all the time.

    Composer Molly Joyce
    Molly Joyce
  • I don’t really care about crediting too much.

    Composer Molly Joyce
    Molly Joyce
  • What does weakness mean for me? I don’t know if I have the answers yet.

    Composer Molly Joyce
    Molly Joyce

Transactional and Collaborative Approaches to Working with Authors

A photograph showing a handshake between two people wearing long-sleeved shirts. (Both hands are dark complexioned; nothing else is identifiable.)

Informed consent is essential for successfully collaborating with writers.  In my previous article, I introduced “The Talk,” a targeted discussion you and a writer should have before beginning a partnership. The Talk’s purpose is to ensure you both fully understand what is involved in the collaboration and how you will work together. It involves establishing compatibility, negotiating both interpersonal and logistical concerns, and arriving at the informed consent necessary for an effective partnership. However, what each person must be informed about and consent to depends in part on whether the partnership will be transactional or more collaborative. 

Purely Transactional Partnerships

A basic type of partnership between a composer and a writer is:

  • The composer finds an existing text and requests permission to use it.
  • The copyright holder agrees.
  • The composer writes the piece.

This is an example of a purely transactional partnership. These involve fewer total interactions, and those interactions are less artistically impactful. That means personal compatibility is less critical than in other types of partnerships. Transactional text-setting can thus be a good way to test the waters with someone you might like to work more closely with in the future. Or, this hands-off approach may be your preferred modus operandi.

A photo of a book opened by an unidentified pair of hands; the text of the book is blurry and not comprehensible.

Image by João Silas (Cianorte, Brasil) via Unsplash

For transactional partnerships, you can likely skip the interpersonal aspects of The Talk discussed below and start with getting permission from the copyright holder.[1] The writer usually owns the copyright for unpublished texts (unless, for example, they are under contract with a publisher for a forthcoming book). The situation is more complex for published texts. Depending on when the text was published, the type of publication, and what agreement the author made with the publisher, the copyright may reside with the author or the publisher.[2]

A purely transactional partnership involves fewer total interactions and those interactions are less artistically impactful.

In any case, the best first step is to contact the author. They should know who can license your setting, and more importantly, you want their approval for your project. If a writer is invested in you setting their words, they can give you permission if they hold the copyright or can help you secure permission from their publisher.[3]

Start by sending the author a short, polite message introducing yourself and expressing your interest in their work. Ask if they might be open to you setting their text and if so, could you discuss licensing. If you don’t hear back, wait a couple weeks and follow up. If you don’t hear back again, you may choose to send a third and final message. If they never reply or you couldn’t find any contact information for them, you might try the publisher directly.

Once an author responds positively to your inquiry, you can discuss licensing with them/their publisher. The next article will cover what permissions you need and what you should offer in exchange, since those topics will be applicable regardless of whether your partnership is transactional or more co-creative. For now, we’ll turn to non-transactional partnerships and the interpersonal portion of The Talk.

Collaborative Partnerships

Collaboration exists on a continuum. Purely transactional partnerships like those described above exist at one extreme with integrated co-creation at the other and a variety of possibilities in between. The type of partnership you choose will depend on your preferences, those of your collaborator(s), and the nature of the project.

Beyond being purely transactional, some partnerships may involve low levels of creative interaction. For example, a composer may ask the writer questions about their intentions or get a sense of the text’s pacing, structure, and tone by hearing the author read their work. Increasing levels of collaboration might involve: the author and composer working together to determine which text(s) will be set or the order of texts in a cycle, the author making alterations to the text at the composer’s request, the composer bouncing ideas off the author, or the composer getting feedback from the author about in-progress music. These activities increase both the amount of interaction between the composer and author, and the impact of those interactions, since they will affect the resulting music to greater degrees.

When an author is creating a new text, the possibilities for collaboration expand even more.

When an author is creating a new text, the possibilities for collaboration expand even more. The author and composer can discuss themes and artistic considerations before the words or music are written. Additionally, if both are willing, they can share input on one another’s work as it progresses. These deeper types of engagement move toward the far end of the collaboration spectrum—integrated co-creation—which involves the composer and author working extremely closely on both words and music.

Two unidentified people, each with open laptops, sitting next to each other and writing notes on paper with a pencil.


Image from Helloquence (Grenoble, France) via Unsplash

Partnerships that are more collaborative will require a higher degree of compatibility between the composer and writer to be successful, as will those that are longer term or otherwise more intense. The compatibility between you and a potential partner thus can inform what type of partnership you try. Conversely, being clear on how much collaboration is required in a specific project can guide you in choosing the right author. Either way, compatibility is an important consideration if you want anything other than a purely transactional partnership.

Assessing Compatibility

A big part of The Talk is assessing your compatibility and talking through any roadblocks to collaborating effectively. The questions below can serve as a starting point. The answers to these will be very individual, so it is worth considering them on your own before talking to your potential collaborator. Think not only about your responses but also what you would be comfortable with in a partner. You may have hard limits on these questions or could find a range of possibilities acceptable.

A big part of The Talk is assessing your compatibility

Artistic Goals

  • What are your artistic goals/vision for the proposed collaboration?
  • Will you be continuing to explore techniques/themes/ideas found in your previous work?
  • Are you looking to go in a new direction for this project?
  • What interests you in your potential collaborator’s work?
  • Is there something you are hoping your partner will or will not do in this project?

Process

  • What is your working process?
  • How much interaction do you want with your partner?
  • What types of interactions do you prefer?
  • How much time do you need to complete your work?
  • How do you handle deadlines?
  • What would happen if the author decides to revise the text after the music is started or after it is finished?

Feedback

  • How much input do you want to give about your partner’s work?
  • How much input do you want to receive about your work?
  • How and when will feedback be offered?
  • How much are you or your partner obligated to incorporate each other’s suggestions?

Communication Style

  • What are your preferred media for communication?
  • How quickly will you need responses to any questions?
  • How quickly will you be able to respond to your partner?
  • If talking in person or via phone/video chat is preferred, does your schedule allow for that?
  • Do you have any communication pet peeves or quirks that may impact the collaboration?

Prior Experience

  • Have you worked with a writer before, or has the writer worked with a composer?
  • If so, how did that collaboration go?
  • What agreements did you have in place for your prior collaboration(s)?
  • What expectations do you have based on that prior experience?
  • What might you like to do the same as before?
  • What might you like to do differently?

Once you’ve thought through these topics—or others that are important to you—have a frank discussion with your potential collaborator. Focus on those issues that directly relate to your proposed project. You may be on the same page, or may find that some problem-solving or compromising is necessary to head off potential problems.

You don’t need to agree on everything in this portion of The Talk, but you both should be comfortable with your compatibility and your plans for how you will interact. You also absolutely need to agree on deadlines, permissions, compensation, and any other details that go in your contract. The rest of The Talk deals with these elements.

Deadlines

A hand holding a small alarm clock which shows the time as approximately 2:17.

Image by Lukas Blazek (Czech Republic) via Unsplash

Setting deadlines is both an interpersonal and logistical issue. Unless you are using an existing text or are proposing an open-ended project, your schedule and approach to deadlines must be compatible with each other’s and with the requirements of the project.

Build cushions into your timeline, and be clear about what deadlines are not moveable.

Scheduling can be a deal-breaker especially if the author is creating new text, so check availability early in the process and then discuss specifics. If the project has a firm deadline, ensure due dates for any intermediary steps, such as finalizing the text, fit the writer’s schedule while allowing you enough time to complete the piece. Build cushions into your timeline, and be clear about what deadlines are not moveable. Also discuss whether text must be completed before the music or if there will be any overlap or simultaneous creation. If a certain project doesn’t work out because of timing but you are otherwise compatible, plan to work together in the future and find another text of your current project.

Assuming scheduling works out and you both feel compatible enough to collaborate, the next step is negotiating permissions and compensation. These are important topics that are often not clearly understood, so they will be the focus of the third article.

Notes

1. Stephen Paulus’s Before You Set Those Words to Music is a good resource on this topic, and I’ll revisit the idea of which permissions you need in my third article.

2. Before the Copyright Act of 1976, authors generally sold their copyright in full to the publisher. After it took effect in 1978, authors could license their copyrights or sell them, either in full or in part. From then on, it was in an author’s best interest to negotiate publishing contracts where they license or sell only the rights needed for a certain publication while retaining the others, if possible. For more info on copyright, see The Writer’s Legal Guide, 4th Ed. by Tad Crawford and Cay Murray.

3. See Dale Trumbore’s No More Zombie Poets, Part 2: Finding Writers Who Aren’t Dead for more on this.


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
ASCAP Foundation Logo

A Primer on Collaborating with Authors

Poetry books

Introduction

I could wax poetic about why composers should set texts by living authors. Some big reasons include texts that stand out amid the sea of well-worn Public Domain poems, topics and style relevant to today’s audiences, more diverse voices and viewpoints, the ability to interact with the author, the possibility of tailor-made texts, and supporting another art form as a living tradition. I’d happily go on in detail about each of these, but I’d rather focus on actionable information you can use to start (or improve) your journey setting contemporary texts. So I will skip the justifications and assume you like working with words and are at least cautiously interested in setting text by a breathing human being.

While it is possible to find interviews where composers talk about specific projects working with authors, there is fairly limited information out there about the nuts and bolts of how to actually start doing it. Dale Trumbore has written about why and how to collaborate with writers in No More Zombie Poets, Part 1: Choosing Better Public Domain Texts and Part 2: Finding Writers Who Aren’t Dead. Aside from that, Stephen Paulus’s Before You Set Those Words to Music includes a clear introduction to copyright, Public Domain, and text-setting permissions. ASCAP and BMI each have some posts about such permissions as well.

My articles will draw on those sources along with my own experiences to explore the process of working with living authors. By authors, I mean writers, poets, librettists, playwrights, or any other creators of words. I’ll cover critical logistics such as finding collaborators, assessing compatibility, creating a text-setting agreement, and navigating the remainder of the process. My purpose is to provide a primer for composers who haven’t yet worked with living authors and to offer another veteran’s perspective to those experienced in collaborating with writers.

Finding Authors

A common question about working with authors is where to find them. If you want to set contemporary text but don’t have a specific author or work in mind, the prospect of finding someone whose writings you like, with whom you are compatible enough to have a good working relationship, and who is also interested in collaborating with you can appear daunting.

Finding contemporary writers is very much possible. It can take time, though…

In reality, finding contemporary writers is very much possible. It can take time, though, so this is not something best done when you have a project with an impending deadline. Rather, think of finding authors as a lifestyle and incorporate some or all of the suggestions below into your normal activities. Eventually, you’ll discover authors whose work interests you and start building relationships with them.

Poet Athena Kildegaard

Poet Athena Kildegaard reading her work at the Art Song Lab 2019 Poetry Reading.

You could find contemporary texts and authors by browsing manuscripts at your local bookstore and perusing literary journals or similar periodicals. If you don’t want to leave the comfort of your couch, the American Academy of Poets’ website is a great resource. It allows you to search for poems, poets, keywords, poetry activities in your area, and more. They also offer a poem-a-day email subscription and frequently share poetry on social media.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms are wonderful for connecting with potential collaborators. You may already have writers in your immediate network. Or, you could ask friends or colleagues for suggestions of writers to check out. Finding the social media account of an author you respect and seeing who they follow or whose work they share could also introduce you to new possibilities.

Additionally, some platforms include groups where you could find possible collaborators. I’ve found the following Facebook groups very helpful:

Composer Writer Connection
Contemporary Opera Connection
Librettist Network

Searching for keywords like writer, author, poet, playwright, or librettist bring up many other groups that you might want to check out.

Meeting Authors

Discovering writers in person limits you to those in or at least coming through your area, but it also allows for more personal contact.

Discovering writers in person limits you to those in or at least coming through your area, but it also allows for more personal contact. Your local bookstores or libraries may have upcoming readings by local authors or those touring a book. Area colleges may have Creative Writing programs that sponsor events, or you may be able to contact faculty to seek possible collaborators.

A Google search for events near you may also be fruitful. When I searched “Connecticut poet,” I found there is a Connecticut Poetry Society. Their website had information on readings and other events, links to local poetry groups and independent bookstores, an annual publication they sponsor, and more. There is a network called the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, which lists other state societies. Yours may have one, too, and there may be a city or regional group nearby where you can meet authors. If you travel, you can also look for events in your destination.

Poet Delali Aviyor

Poet Delali Aviyor reading at The Atlantic Center for the Arts (2018).

Some organizations specifically focus on connecting composers and writers. A few examples include:

Art Song Lab
American Opera Projects’ Composers & the Voice
Nautilus Composer-Librettist Studio
Tapestry Opera’s Composer-Librettist Laboratory
Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative

The programs listed here are primarily educational. Some are tuition-based, while others may be free or include financial support. Some are highly competitive, others less so. All provide the opportunity to meet and work with authors from a variety of locations on new projects.

Artist residences are another place you might meet writers if you can participate in one or attend their open studio days or similar events. As with the educational programs above, you are more likely to meet authors outside your local area at an artist residency.

Now What?

It may seem obvious, but once you’ve found someone you think you might want to work with, the next step is getting to know them. Get very familiar with their work and try to connect with them either online or in person. Start thinking about whether you might want to collaborate with them and in what capacity.

If you don’t have a pressing need to collaborate with them on an upcoming project, this process can happen naturally through building a friendship. Then you can bring up the possibility of collaborating once you have a project that feels right.

If you already have a specific project in mind—for example, you think something they wrote would be perfect for an upcoming piece—then skip ahead to proposing… a collaboration, that is. Express your interest in setting their text and describe the potential project to see if they might want to work together. If that writer is not familiar with your music, provide a small number of samples similar to the proposed collaboration.

Informed Consent and “The Talk”

Regardless of whether you find a willing partner through an extended courtship or a direct proposal, the next step is to have “The Talk.”

Regardless of whether you find a willing partner through an extended courtship or a direct proposal, the next step is to have “The Talk.” This is the phase in which you’ll discuss artistic goals, working process, and the logistics of your partnership including permissions for using the text, your financial arrangements, and any other necessary details. It’s akin to taking a big step forward in a romantic relationship, hence the capital letters.

And as with personal relationships, informed consent is the foundation for a successful artistic collaboration. Both parties must understand how the collaboration is going to work and agree in writing before starting the project.

Arriving at informed consent depends on self-awareness and clear communication. Each person should know their preferences in working with others, their creative process, and their artistic goals or intentions. They must also be able to articulate those elements to their partner, understand how their needs relate to those of their partner and the project, and negotiate any conflicts.

Some of that may happen informally as you and your partner are getting to know one another. Other items will need a focused discussion, either oral or written. Discussions in person, on the phone, or via video conferencing have the benefit of real-time responses and a clearer perception of tone. Both of which reduce the chance of miscommunication. However, this may be uncomfortable for some people.

Typed discussions have the advantage of ensuring that everything is written down and easily referenced. Email and other asynchronous methods may also be easier for scheduling. But the participants should be especially conscious both of their own wording and how they are reading the other person’s responses since typed communication can come off colder and harsher than intended. I typically use oral discussions for big issues and email to finalize details or give straightforward updates.

Regardless of how you do it, having The Talk is essential in setting the collaboration up for success. It will be the foundation for your written contract and a roadmap for navigating your partnership. These discussions also help you to get further acquainted and make sure that you really want to work together before you commit.

The next two articles in the series will go more into the interpersonal and legal issues that should be covered in The Talk.


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
ASCAP Foundation Logo

The Internet is Great, We’re Just Not Using it Right

An array of twelve flowerpots with budding plants

Americans idealize what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called the “marketplace of ideas,” a space where every member of society is, by right, free to peddle his creed. Yet the shape or even existence of any such marketplace depends far less on our abstract values than on the structure of the communications and culture industries. We sometimes treat the information industries as if they were like any other enterprise, but they are not, for their structure determines who gets heard.

—Tim Wu in The Master Switch

In my first post I proposed that the internet provides fertile soil to grow intimate, genuine communities and to foster a connected, organic kind of art-making within such communities. I want to talk more about how important the internet is to this vision, and why.

The internet is great. We’re just not using it right.

We don’t need digital detox.

We don’t need digital detox. Or more accurately, we do need a detox, but we have misidentified the toxin. Interacting online is not inherently poisonous, and online interactions are no less meaningful than talking face to face. Different, yes, but just as valuable. If we experience problems relating to each other online, I believe it’s because we’re doing it wrong.

To my mind, there are two main challenges facing us in our interactions and communities on the internet: The first is the overwhelming amount of choice. The second is the ubiquity and malignancy of the big social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter). We can solve the choice problem. And we can abandon — note that I say abandon, not reform or regulate — the social media platforms which dominate and poison our online experience. Then we can begin reclaiming better ways to interact online and building new ones, as I will discuss in the next two posts. If we do these things, I think the internet can be a much happier place.

A collage of cards on each of which is printed a single word:

Image by Gerd Altmann (Geralt) via Pixabay

Choices, Choices!

A serious problem with the internet is that it opens the door to so much wonderful information and friendship that it makes it harder to choose. This is solvable if we are tough and honest with ourselves, and with each other, about making choices and saying ‘no.’ If the internet shows us more stuff, but we commit to saying ‘yes’ only to that which our human minds can successfully and fully attend, it means saying ‘no’ to more. It’s painful to live with the knowledge that there are amazing things we will never know about because we have said no. But I believe we must each be bold and proud about being choosy. If we choose to read one email but not another, it’s because we made that choice, not because email itself is bad.

If we choose to read one email but not another, it’s because we made that choice, not because email itself is bad.

I try to practice what I preach. The main news I read regularly is The Economist (because it feels centrist and I like the dry humor). Even the one magazine is too much information for my poor brain — I barely get through each week’s issue (I’m currently three weeks behind). I also follow the RSS feeds of a few blogs and news sources, but I usually skip The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, all the rest of them. So I miss out on things. It’s painful but it feels good to make these hard necessary choices, because it means that for what I do take in, I can attend to fully. To be fully engaged, to sit down and have a good meal, feels so much better than to taste from a continuous stream of samples, none of which stay long enough for me to be nourished.

amanita phalloides (young)

Two young specimens of amanita phalloides, commonly known as “the death cap,” which is perhaps the world’s most poisonous mushroom. (Photo by Stanislaw Skowron from the Wikimedia Commons)

Toxic! Wait, Social Media is Not the Internet

Many people spend most of their internet time on social media, so it is easy to conflate the two. Social media is literally embedded in our online experience — those three familiar little icons for Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are on nearly every web site, every brochure and sign. But these platforms are not the internet itself. Far from it.

From 2006 until earlier this year, I was a steady Facebook user (I was also on Instagram and Twitter but didn’t post much). In the past few years I have disliked these platforms more and more. Lovely interactions take place, but overall, it didn’t feel good. I have been reading books by Jaron Lanier and Tim Wu and others about the harmful effects of the ad-based business model behind Facebook (including Instagram), Google, and Twitter. The business model depends on controlling our behavior and thinking for the benefit of their only paying customers, the advertisers. The structure of the underlying design bends our interactions toward the nasty and superficial, because these are the most profitable for advertisers. I don’t like being used. I object to my affections (and more frighteningly, my hatreds) literally being sold to the highest bidder.

So for me, and I believe for many, the internet is drastically happier when we stay off social media. It’s important to know what’s a toxin and what’s a carrier. When possible we don’t dispense with contaminated water, we root out the contaminant. We refresh the stream. I recently left all mainstream social media, and I know many others who have left. I am hoping for a mass exodus.

I object to my affections (and more frighteningly, my hatreds) literally being sold to the highest bidder.

Perhaps influenced by these problems of too much choice and manipulative social media, many mistrust the internet as a whole. You’ll hear people say things like: “Interacting online is great, but if you want to really connect with someone it’s better in person.” Certainly, there is no replacement for sitting across from a warm human being, from sharing one’s time and one’s life with living, breathing people. And there are pitfalls to written communication, times when it’s better to talk it out in person or over the phone, as you’ll know if you’ve ever sent an email when you’re angry.

But at the same time that we collectively misuse and underestimate the internet, I think we overestimate in-person interaction.

A raven with a key in its mouth sits atop an empty open birdcage on a shoreline from which a dove is seen flying away and a balloon is also visible in the distance.

Image by Ria Sopala (pixundfertig) via Pixabay

Physical Place is Exclusive

We may not notice the ways in which being together, face to face, is limited, exclusive, and shuts out possibility. Anyone too far away is left out. And by too far away, we often mean away from the place where ‘the’ discussion is happening, too far from centers of privilege. Those with physical and mobility limitations are left out of in-person relating more than those without them usually notice. Those whose lives are busy with family and work obligations are often left out. And those who are paid less for their work often need to work more hours to support themselves, and so have fewer free hours for face-to-face relating. People who earn less can be disproportionately left out.

Even when physical presence is possible, in-person interactions are exclusive by personality and communication style. Interacting face to face favors the neurotypical and those whose speech is typical and fluent, while those with different social skill sets are often left out of the discussion. Highly structured discussion methods can help with these problems, but you can see where I’m going. In-person relating can be great, but it’s not automatically better.

The Internet Can be a Profound and Joyful Place

On the internet, different dynamics exist. Not lesser or better, but different and, I believe, equal. Online communications — when handled with care — offer a remedy to the exclusivity of in-person interactions.

Things become possible online that are not possible in person.

Things become possible online that are not possible in person. Different kinds of people shine forth and different kinds of conversations take place. The online world used to be more exclusive than the face-to-face world because access to internet-enabled devices was limited. But that is quickly changing. Over half of the globe, at many economic levels, can text, chat and watch videos on their phones (a blessing in places where literacy rates are low) — more all the time. It’s almost as easy for someone in Philadelphia to chat with someone across town as in rural Africa (where, despite setbacks, internet access is growing rapidly… Facebook is trying to help with that, but for mostly the wrong reasons). When such connections prevail, two people very different in experience and perspective can, potentially, learn in fresh and valuable ways from each other.

Young uniformed Ugandan students sitting in front of computer terminals.

A solar computer class in a rural community in the Mukono District of Uganda sponsored by the Kikandwa Rural Communities Development Organization and the Maendeleo Foundation Uganda. Additional information about this initiative is available on a 2014 blog post by Robert Kibaya, Executive Director and Founder of the Kikandwa Rural Communities Development Organisation. (This above photo is reproduced here with the permission of Kibaya and Asia Kamukama, Executive Director of the Maendeleo Foundation.)

For some, online interaction will never feel, or be, equal to talking in person. I don’t seek to convince anyone to give up what they love for something they don’t trust or enjoy. But I think there is an undue bias against online communication, reinforced by the flawed forms of it that currently dominate our consciousness, and maintained by the fact that most forms of in-person exclusivity are hard to notice.

It might sound overstated to say that chatting by text can be just as good as chatting in person (though different). But this is not a radical argument, it’s a conservative one. It’s about reclaiming ancient and fundamental forms of human relating — meaningful, intimate conversations, old-fashioned communities — and pushing our technology forward to do this better, online. It’s about using some of the earliest and simplest online tools like email and discussion forums and blogs, things that already work well, and seeking new ways of using them, as well as new methods and tools, that might work even better.

So I believe that if we find better ways to use the internet, then more people can enjoy more and better conversations. With more people. Of more kinds. In more places. With people they could otherwise never reach. They can form friendships they could not have otherwise. These friendships can coalesce into communities that can help make the world a better place. This is already happening, and it needs to happen more.

My Life is Better Because of the Internet

The network of humans I cherish and depend on is spread far and wide.

All this comes directly from my own long-time experience. Both professionally and personally, the network of humans I cherish and depend on is spread far and wide. First, there’s my family: after college I moved across the country from where I grew up; not an uncommon thing for my demographic. So common, in fact, so normalized, that the pain of it is often overlooked. There was a real loss there, a lack of being part of one another’s lives. But I barely registered the emotional toll consciously until years later. Technology has helped. Texting has brought us closer, video calls mean my toddler can picture the new toy his grandparents got for their cat yesterday. The internet doesn’t fix the separation, but it heals it partway.

The internet has also been at the center of my creative and employed life. I worked for a tech company for eight years remotely. I build online courses with a friend and colleague on the opposite coast. In those cases, I meet in person once in a while with my colleagues, and it’s fun and it deepens the bond. But the relationship thrives primarily online.

My work that happens entirely online is just as deep, demonstrating what I think the internet is good for: equality of access and greater connection and community. I worked on the team that created The Morgan Library’s Music Manuscripts Online, where my daily tasks were highly tactile: I sat in the Morgan’s vault, paging through Mozart and Schumann manuscripts to capture their often confusing pagination for those who could not, like me, see them in the flesh. It’s the best of the internet: connection, democratization, reducing the inherent exclusivity of those physical manuscripts. Yes, the online viewer cannot, as I could, touch the very same paper Mozart had touched (well, not without an appointment and a plane ticket). So there is a loss. But the gain is that they can now have a personal encounter with these composers, and maybe even sense Mozart’s personality in the way he shaped each note.

Robin Muir-Miller

Robin Muir-Miller (1934-2019)

For me, the universe is divided: my little universe of physical proximity and my online universe.

Deep relationships based on written correspondence are as old as pen and paper. The internet can only make this kind of bond easier and more likely. In 2009 I heard from a poet in Australia, Robin Muir-Miller, who had found my compositions on my website. She liked my music, and I liked her poetry. We began exchanging emails about our work and before long we began collaborating as lyricist and composer. Over the course of ten years and many collaborations, we became close friends. She was in her 70s when we met, and confined to a wheelchair by her worsening MS. She became less and less able to read and type on her computer, and she died this past spring. So she was cut off from people physically, and email opened a door. We never met, never even spoke on the phone. It was a relationship between people who would never have met any other way and whose perspectives and interests matched each other unusually closely (despite some heated arguments, from which we both learned a lot). Our collaboration led to the large-scale work This Ravelled Dust: Cantata for a Nuclear Age, premiered in Toronto in 2010, which is for me one of our best and most important works. I wrote about the piece for NewMusicBox in 2011 in response to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.

All of these examples are about reducing exclusivity and increasing connection and access. I want the world to lay wide open for every thoughtful soul who wants to participate. For me, the universe is divided: On the one hand my little universe of physical proximity, beautiful environs full of tactile experiences, face-to-face human intimacy, not much commuting or traveling, time freed up for living and being. On the other hand my online universe, a rich tapestry of close friendships, interesting interactions, unexpected confluences, joyful professional and artistic opportunities. My iPhone is a happy place. Everything that happens on it is about learning, creating, and human relating. I don’t need a digital detox.

Numerous cartoon renderings of various people showing lines connecting them all to each other.

Image by Gordon Johnson (GDJ) via Pixabay

Let’s Build Better Tools for Being Human Online

I have two specific goals, and I have launched initiatives to test these goals in practice. I’ll talk about those projects in my next two posts, but here is a bit about the goals.

I want to find viable alternatives to social media as we know it.

First, I want to find viable alternatives to social media as we know it. I have left the big social media platforms and I have invited others to join me. But instead of receding to my local corner, hemmed in by physical proximity, I’m looking for a place online for lay people of every sort and from every possible place, experts together with non-experts in any given topic (see Post 1 for more about experts and non-experts), to share and discuss and learn from each other within new communities. Sites like Meetup.com do not fit the bill because they exclude. I appreciate alternative social media options like MetaFilter and Vero, but I want specific qualities that these platforms don’t focus on in the ways I seek. I also want something different from the ways in which listservs and most online discussion forums work. I am looking for communities that are deliberately small (I love that MetaFilter values this too) — in some cases under ten people per group, in other cases perhaps a few hundred. I believe participation must be rooted in values of opting in, mutual free will, disclosure and permission. Communication online also benefits from being highly structured, with timed and scheduled interactions, in the manner of therapy groups and some online education methods. I also think social media and most current online interaction has the wrong rhythm and that this is a serious flaw — I’ll discuss that in upcoming posts.

Second, I’m an artist and, as I discussed in my first post, I seek a model in which art-making is intimate, on a person-to-person to scale. Where art is organic, growing from interactions that are already taking place about something beyond the art itself. Where art is a secondary but vital element within a community that exists for some other purpose. Where art functions by serving to express and teach the values that guide a community.

These two goals support one another. If we can find ways to push the internet forward and away from ad-based social media, then we can use it to reclaim the intimacy and strength of ancient and proven forms of human relating in small groups. When art naturally has something to serve beyond itself, it grows organically and naturally, imbued with the deep meanings of the community context in which it serves. Such art does not need to seek an audience. It has its home before it is made, and is made because it has a home.

Structure and Freedom in Collaboration (A.k.a. The Incomplete Non-Idiot’s Guide to Workshopping with Musicians)

A shadow image of two performers, one cellist and one pianist

Early on in my career, I made the mistake of writing a lot of very melodic music for performers who were more predisposed to Berio than to Berlioz. Despite everyone’s optimism and best efforts, these projects were usually stressful and rarely among my most successful.

I used to think, perhaps narcissistically, that it was exclusively the job of the players I was working with to make my music sound good—that I should write whatever my little composer heart saw fit and then leave it to them to figure it out. We are, after all, taught in class that Bach is God and that musicians are the vessels through which the deity speaks. These early projects, however, taught me that in the real world the reverse is often true, and that it’s a huge part of YOUR job, if not literally the entire job, to write something that will make the players you are working with sound great. Ideally if you are successful in doing that, you will make yourself sound far better in the process as well.

There’s a lot that can go right and wrong when collaborating with musicians in pursuit of the above. However, I’ve found for myself that there are a lot of consistent questions to ask and methods to employ along that winding road to hopefully making “Good Art” that can increase one’s chances of staying the course. Ultimately a lot is common sense and falls under a consistent umbrella: you will never be wasting time by really getting to know your players, writing for them specifically, considering the specific parameters of the project, being sure of what you want to do while remaining open to input and creative detours, and experimenting with techniques to make all that happen.

For me the solution to the above, besides planning well early on, has been to workshop music I’m working on extensively with musicians while learning to be a good collaborator—a lifelong undertaking in itself.

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Before getting there, however, there are a lot of obvious questions to be asked about who I’m writing for, what their aesthetic comfort zone is and how it relates to my own, what the circumstances of the performance/session are, how many rehearsals you get, whether it’s a pick up group or not, as well as the most interesting one: is this a player(s) who wants to be challenged or not? Some musicians will get bored if you’re not writing something that stretches them. Others may feel best about music that’s easy to keep alive in their fingertips. No one wants to put the time in to play something well that they don’t feel “fits them.” For me the most exciting things always happen when you’re working with players you can push a little beyond their comfort zones and who can push you past yours.

Ideally you meet each other part way, with a piece that sounds like you, but is tailored to the performer.

I am a huge believer in workshops if you can do them, because they’re really the best way to get into the weeds with a piece of music and collaborator(s). If you’re writing something good, you can file that away and develop it. If you are writing something stupid, they’re a great chance to pretend that never happened and course correct. Overall they’re invaluable opportunities to try things on your “growing edge” while getting to know the strengths, styles, and limitations of the people you’re working with and figuring out how to mold your writing to their hands. This does not mean sacrificing your voice, so much as playing with how it can be bent and expanded and trying things that you don’t already know how to do, which I’ve found always leads to better and more interesting pieces than I could have written alone with Sibelius. Ideally you meet each other part way, with a piece that sounds like you, but is tailored to the performer.

For workshops to be successful, I’ve found that doing three is best. One with early sketches, one about 1/2 – 2/3 of the way through the composing process, and one when you are almost finished to fine-tune. They are always short (musicians are busy), I record them, and in planning for them, aim to be over prepared but leave space for sounds and ideas that are unexpected to emerge. A balance between order and chaos.

The order side is easy: parts need to be clean, any technical electronic elements must be road-tested, and the writing must be well-developed/written enough that players can feel the bones of what you are trying to say. And you should have some idea of how you want to structure and lead rehearsals, since some material is invariably better approached “cold” than others. I try to start with something easy that I know will work. You should also be as sure as you can that you’re writing idiomatically, since no matter how keen you are to expand the possibilities of the harp, if your harpist is tap dancing all over the place because she needs to be some sort of eight-footed octopus to cover her pedal changes (I know, I know, harps only have 7 pedals), you’re both going to sound like garbage. And not in the cool Shirley Manson way.

Facilitating the unexpected is harder and in itself an endlessly broad subject, but to get there some of the things I try include:

Giving players a few looping musical “cells” from the piece to improvise with, or perhaps leaving some holes or incomplete endings in musical phrases (ones that feel as though they could be jumping off points), then asking them where it “feels” (excuse the flowery language) like it wants to go. Even if they’re not improvisers, musicians obviously have a deeper and more intuitive grasp of their instrument than you do and sometimes just hearing where their hands wander naturally can give you a sense for how to better tailor your writing to their instrument and personal playing style, while still keeping it within your own language.

Coming in with specific techniques that you are interested in exploring that feel as though they could fit the music you are writing, even if they’re not developed, has also proven useful for me. Sometimes I’ll have the earliest sections of a piece formed, and then ideas for some more bombastic moments later on that I don’t yet know how to pull off. Putting some half-realized stabs at them on a page to give the general sense (something like the rough under-painting a painter might do), and then honing the details from there with a great player’s input has proven productive.

I tried all of the above, for one, with violinist Jenny Choi, who—after telling me that it felt like a section of my solo piece for her wanted to open up—gave me a crash course in barriolages before I really knew how to write them well and was a great cheerleader who encouraged me to follow the lines of what I was writing as far as I could take them. I did something similar with a piece for harpist Ashley Jackson, wherein I wanted to try some more folksy, virtuosic, uptempo writing that I wanted to explode off the page. In both cases, I had specific techniques that I wanted to try and vague ideas of where to place them, and through fumbling around in the dark was able to put all the pieces together and find moments for them to really take off. Had it not been for the input of those players, the music I wrote would sound vastly more closed off.

This also takes different forms when working with rock bands—a different, but related story. Players from this world improvise by nature, so balancing space and structure in a musical road map becomes even more important. You have to know exactly where you want to go in the big picture sense, while being open to how you get there with the details. In approaching how to work on my own record, for example, some things I tried included: bringing in a sketch of a melody or lead line and asking players to embellish, demoing a synth sound/part myself to establish a general direction and then having someone else work around or replace that, or literally just building in space for a band to jump on some sort of groove and build out an arrangement collaboratively. David Bottrill, who I co-produced my project with, also had some great tricks, my favorite of which was sitting on the floor and changing guitar pedal settings mid-performance to see if that sparked anything unexpected. It usually did.

Ultimately, it’s all about learning the art of being a great collaborator, checking your ego at the door, remaining open to unexpected ideas, and recognizing that all musical partnerships are opportunities for growth.

In all instances the material you are working from has to be something that feels open-ended rather than resolved, as though it could “lead somewhere.” It’s a hard line to navigate: come in with nothing/too little and players won’t know what to do. Come in with too much, and they won’t have space to try anything and will get bored.

Ultimately—and here’s where we all say ‘kum ba yah’—it’s all about learning the art of being a great collaborator, checking your ego at the door, remaining open to unexpected ideas, and recognizing that all musical partnerships are opportunities for growth—sentiments that were missing from those early, rocky projects of mine. Partnerships between composers and musicians work best when both parties feel stretched and challenged, everyone is receptive to ideas but in control of their voice and what they want to say, no one should be pandering or selling their ideas or talents short, and the end result is something that’s been executed well that everyone feels pride in/ownership of. It’s often messy, and along the way there are conversations about whether you should be writing to please yourself or other people, how exactly you are supposed to get there, and when to push people and when not to, all of which require different answers project by project. The hard part is knowing which is which, what the players you are working with are capable of, and what you are capable of yourself.

Ellen Reid: More Than Sound

A woman sitting on a blue couch

“Would you ever say any concert is just about the sound?” Ellen Reid asked me when I met with her in Brooklyn a few days after the final PROTOTYPE performance of her opera p r i s m.

That question might initially seem odd coming from someone who defines herself as both a composer and a sound artist—someone who pays close attention to sound, whether it’s the careful spatial positioning of objects in an installation or slightly changing the instrumental forces accompanying voices to make listeners think they’re hearing different music. Yet that question made total sense to me after attending two live performances of her music the previous week—the aforementioned emotionally traumatic yet life-affirming p r i s m and the powerful, politically charged choral work dreams of the new world.

Although the music was extremely compelling in both works, it was clearly conceived to be just one of many elements that went into these multisensory experiences. In the realm of contemporary opera, audiences are now accustomed to watching a theatrical experience unfold that is every bit as significant as the pitches in the arias that are being sung, so in that sense p r i s m is not unique. (It is unique rather for the way that the story does not unfold in linear time, and how the music helps to skew the storyline’s altered chronology.) Concert presentations of choral pieces, on the other hand, are usually always focused exclusively on the composer despite the pedigree of the text being set. Yet Reid made it clear in her comments before the performance of dreams of the new world, as well as in our conversation, that her music was just one of the elements that went into creating this piece. For those pre-performance comments, as well as during the bow she took at the end of it, Reid was joined by both her librettist Sarah LaBrie and Sayd Randle, who served as the work’s lead researcher and dramaturg.

“We came up with the concept together,” Reid explained. “We were all involved in each other’s work, and I think that that’s a really honest thing that happens in the craft of making music. I guess in all performative mediums, but especially in more theatrical mediums with a story.”

Reid’s collaborative generosity is extremely refreshing and comes from an extensive background in composing for film soundtracks and incidental music for theater, as well as living for two and a half years in Thailand where she immersed herself in traditional musical practices.

“The amount of people that it takes to make a work of art is enormous,” Reid elaborated. “We have put a certain amount of weight on different parts of those things to make some of them seem more important, but they couldn’t happen without the other ones. … I think one reason that I’m really set on featuring my collaborators is that I’ve done a lot of work in other mediums where composers are not the first artist. … [To me,] it feels more like a constellation.”

  • The amount of people that it takes to make a work of art is enormous, but it’s usually credited to one person.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • Would you ever say any concert is just about the sound?

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • You can’t ever watch anything for the first or second time if you’ve made it.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • I think it’s not that rare, especially for women, to start writing a little later.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • I grew up going to see different art things, but one thing that I didn’t see often was concert music.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • One of my entry points into opera was when I was living in Thailand working with Thai classical opera.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • I was obsessed with figuring out how I could make a song that sounded sad to every person in the world.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • Composition has to do with notes. And sound art has to do with how you hear.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • Everything’s in response to everything else.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • People who want to be playwrights want to be in the driver’s seat. And in opera, you’re not.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist

Reid’s instinctive team spirit, as well as her awareness that sound always exists alongside other sensory stimuli, even informs music she creates that would otherwise be perceived as purely “instrumental” or “abstract,” words put in scare quotes here because they’re not particularly adequate descriptors for Reid’s output. For example, even when writing a piece for orchestra, Reid will write tempos a certain way based on her mindfulness of what the conductor will look like during its realization.

“I think there’s an element of choreography and theater in how everything is interpreted as a viewer,” she explained.

Reid seemed to imply that she would be composing for orchestra again in the near future, but since it had yet to be officially announced, she would not offer us any further details about the project other than to acknowledge that whatever she writes will inevitably be informed by the visual realities that occur during the process of a large group of people making music as a result of someone’s baton movements and/or hand gestures.

“It has to be. They’re front and center: a dancer conductor.”


Ellen Reid in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at the home of Sarah Baird Knight in Brooklyn, NY
January 14, 2019—1:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan